Christmas and Advent in Vienna
No sooner has November drawn a thick curtain of drizzle and fog across the heavens and the days become steadily shorter, then some places sink into a deep melancholy. But not Vienna. Here the weeks leading up to Christmas are romantic and idyllic.
The city shimmers in a mild glow of candles while the sweet aromas of gingerbread, mulled wine and Christmas baking pervade the air. The streets and shops are festively decorated and Christmas markets enchant young and old alike. Year in, year out.
This section is to introduce you to the customs and events that make up this joyous and fun-filled season in the beautiful and romantic city on the Danube.
The first Advent weekend is the traditional beginning of the Christmas season. Advent (Latin for “arrival, coming”) is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. Advent, the period of preparation for the festival honoring the birth of Christ.
This is the day when in living rooms all over the country, whether in small mountain farms or in elegant city villas, advent wreaths, woven from evergreen twigs and decorated with ribbons and traditionally four candles—three purple and one rose (even though you will see candles with other color often red or white) — are hung or prominently placed. The three purple candles in the Advent wreath symbolize hope, peace, and love. These candles are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose candle, which symbolizes joy, is usually lit on the third Sunday.
On each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, one more candle on the wreath is lit at dinnertime, many families pray, read Christmas stories or sing carols together.
For kids Advent is a great test of patience. The time leading up to Christmas Eve passes all too slowly even when each day they are allowed to open one of the 24 windows on their Advent calendar to discover little pictures or gifts. Still, they can hardly wait till Christmas to see if their letters to the Christkind (baby Jesus) have been answered: “Dear Christkind, I drink my cocoa every morning and don’t pull the cat’s tail. Please bring me a model train.”
December 4: St. Barbara’s Day (Barbaratag)
St. Barbara was a virgin Holy Helper and martyred in 306 AD. Barbara, who also refused her pagan suitors, was locked in a tower by her pagan father. The tower had two windows and Barbara had a third one made to symbolize the Holy Trinity.In a fury, her pagan father struck off her head and in that instant was himself struck by lightning. Some sources say that before having her head cut off, Barbara was “racked, birched and carded with metal combs, forced to lie on a bed of sharp shards and seared with red-hot blades”.
December 6: St. Nikolaus Day (Nikolaustag)
Nicholas, the special saint of children, is widely honored throughout Austria. He is an ancestor of Santa Claus and Father Christmas, but in Austria he appears on his saint’s day, December 6, a holiday separate from Christmas. In Austria today the saint customarily appears in flowing robe and miter-the tall, pointed headdress worn by bishops. St. Nicholas carries a shepherd’s staff and a thick book, in which the guardian Angels have been keeping track all year of the good and bad deeds of the children.
At the appointed time the whole family, often including grandparents, gathers to await the saint’s arrival. In he walks, accompanied by the Krampus, who is there to deal with the children who deserve a scolding. Nicholas (portrayed by a friend, relative, or neighbor) calls each young member of the household forward. He may ask them to give an account of themselves, or perhaps to recite their prayers. After each child promises good behavior, the bishop distributes treats: oranges, nuts, and sweets.
December 8: Immaculate Conception (Mariä Empfängnis)
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a national holiday in Austria. It celebrates Anne’s conception of Mary. Anne and her husband Joachim were old and childless. When Joachim attempted to sacrifice at the temple, his offering was refused because he and Anne were childless. Joachim fled to the fields to be with his sheep where an angel appeared and told him that his wife would bear a child and to go and meet her at the Golden Gate of Jersusalem. Another angel gave Anne the same message. Thus Mary was conceived immaculately, i.e., without original sin. St. Anne is the patron saint of pregnant women and invoked during childbirth.
Celebration of the Immaculate Conception was stopped as a public holiday by the Nazis during the war years, but following a national referendum in the 1950s, the Immaculate Conception Day was reinstituted as a national holiday.
December 24: Christmas Eve (Heiliger Abend)
The Christmas tree comes to Austrian homes only on Christmas Eve, December 24. While the children are out, at a Christmas show at the theater or with older relatives or friends of the family who are then invited over to share in the celebration, parents set up the tree, decorate it and then lock the room. After dusk, the ringing of a bell announces that the Christkindl has just flown by and instructed the helping angels to leave the presents for the little ones. The door opens, the room is bathed in the warm, flickering light of the (almost always real) candles, everyone sings a verse or two of Silent Night, and the cheerful giving and unwrapping begins.
Stores close in the afternoon and don’t reopen until December 27. Christmas is celebrated with a festive meal and distribution of presents provided by the Christ child (Christkind). While Santa Claus (Weihnachtsmann) has taken over as gift giver in some homes, many families maintain the old tradition. Theaters, cinemas and concert halls are closed, but there is a Christmas concert at City Hall (Rathaus) in the early afternoon. Roman Catholics celebrate the day with midnight Mass, the culmination of which is the singing of “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”).
December 25: Christmas Day (Christtag)
Christmas Day, December 25th, is one of quiet celebration and happy reunions with relatives and friends. As is true of most important occasions in Austria, the Christmas holiday is fueled by a variety of tempting specialties to eat and drink. In some housholds after the Christmas Day feast the Christmas tree is lit again, and everyone joins in singing carols.
December 26: St. Stephen’s Day (Stefanitag)
St. Stephen’s Day like Christmas Day is a holiday filled with children playing with new toys, families and friends visiting back and forth, extra-elaborate meals being served, gala concerts and opera performances being offered in deference to the season. As St. Stephen is Vienna’s Patron saint, the day is an occasion for more celebrating in the capital. Special exhibitions illustrate the customs and traditions of this time of the year.
December 31: New Year’s Eve (Silvester)
Vienna on New Year’s Eve offers an explosive mixture of events as the city lets its hair down for an all-night party. There are marquees and live performances, rock ‘n’ roll, disco and old-fashioned waltzes. The New Year’s Trail points the way from one attraction to the next. Everything stops on the stroke of midnight as the ‘Pummerin’ bell in St. Stephen’s Cathedral booms in the New Year, before the revelers continue to party on right through the night.
January 1: New Year’s Day (Neujahr)
The traditional Vienna Philharmonic Concert, featuring the music of the Strausses, begins a 11 AM. The New Year’s concert was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve in 1939 as a concert honoring the work of Johann Strauss. The next concert, held on January 1, 1941, evolved into the New Year’s Concert which is renowned in the world today.
If you want to attend, you must order tickets from a ticket agency at least a year in advance, or you can stay home and watch the live worldwide TV broadcast as you recover from the previous night’s celebrating. Stores are closed.
January 6: Epiphany (Heilige Drei Könige)
Epiphany remembers the Three Wise Men from the East who were looking for the newly-born Christ.On Epiphany and preceding days, young people dressed as the Three Wise Men they go from house to house to bring good tidings and news of Christ’s birth. They carry along the “Star of Bethlehem”, which is showing them the right way. They collect monetary donations for underdeveloped countries (but appreciate a small gift of cookies or chocolate). Usually they’ll write C(aspar), B(althasar), M(elchior) and the year in chalk over the entrance of Roman Catholic homes. Stores are closed.
Christmas Saints As Matchmakers
Christmas Saints As Matchmakers and other odd bits in old Austrian Advent Customs and traditions. While seeming rather quaint today, these old folk beliefs and customs do reflect the importance a young woman’s matrimonial prospects held in former times. Young maidens had one career possibility in life and that was marriage. Alternatives weren’t nearly as attractive. It was only natural that young maidens were preoccupied with trying to determine just who their future husbands might be.
The nibbling of mice on the organ bellows of St. Nikolaus Church in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf near Salzburg threatened to ruin Christmas Eve mass in the year 1818. Since none of the available music was suitable without an organ as accompaniment, the curate had to compose a substitute – or face a silent Christmas. That is how ”Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (”Silent Night, Holy Night”), one of the most popular Christmas carols ever written, came into being.
In Austria “Stille Nacht” is considered a national treasure. Traditionally the song may not be played publicly before Christmas Eve, and any commercial use of the 180-year-old carol is verboten.
The charming little village “Christkindl” near Steyr in Upper Austria has got something very unusual, i.e. its name, which means Infant Jesus; according to Austrian tradition, “Christkindl” brings Christmas presents to children. For over fifty years now, Österreichische Post AG has its special “Christkindl” Post Office.
The beginnings of the Viennese Christmas Market date back to more than 7 centuries! Starting November 15, the Advent season will descend upon Vienna again. The aromas of candied fruits, cotton candy and other delicacies like Christmas punch and roasted chestnuts wafting around the small wooden market stalls still retain their magical power. While children warm their hands on paper bags containing hot chestnuts, parents can sip their mulled wine and ponder on the way that the Christmas market has retained all of its childhood fascination.
In Austria, the custom of setting up crèches, or Krippen, in churches is thought to have started in Graz in 1579 with the Jesuits and spread rapidly throughout the country. Early scenes were simple, limited to figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child in a manger, a cow and a donkey all inside a rough cave-like stable. But as this tradition grew, other biblical scenes were added, for example, the arrival of the shepherds and the giving of gifts by the Three Kings.
As the years passed, the scenes themselves expanded to include the whole village of Bethlehem, though depicted with Austrian landscapes and the figures dressed in local Austrian clothing.
The Christmas Tree
When the Christmas tree came to Austria. “In the past when I was young, there was a small candle-lit crib, some candies, and that was it. Nowadays there are no cribs any longer! …” The person who deplored the loss of an old tradition on December 24, 1823 was no other than Archduke John. And what caused his disapproval was the first Christmas tree in Austria, a custom brought on by the family of his brother, Archduke Carl Sieger of Aspern and his wife Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg. The young Archduchess, of Protestant belief, had taken the tree from Germany to Vienna to decorate it for her children. With all the candles lit on the tree – there was of course no electricity at that time yet – the room in which the family celebrated Christmas had a totally new atmosphere.
Advent Calendars,one of the most widely celebrated advent traditions is having an advent calendar. The Advent calendar finds its origins in the 19th Century from the protestant area of Germany. Protestant Christian families made a chalk line for every day in December until Christmas Eve. Before long, commercial entrepreneurs started replacing the ephemeral chalk lines with printed calendars. The first known Advent calendar is for the advent of 1851.
during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in Austria & Germanywere the tops of evergreens which were cut and hung upside down in a living room corner. They were decorated with apples, nuts and strips of red paper.
Today the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe is widespread. This once heathen custom has survived and become a secular part of Christmas customs today.
“12 Days of Christmas” Carol
Curious about the “12 Days of Christmas”? What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially that partridge who won’t come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas?
The Poinsettia is native to Mexico. It has been associated with the Christmas season because the Mexicans thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem.
Advent is so much more than drinking punch in between the stress of christmas shopping tours through urban shopping malls. At least in the partner towns and villages of Advent Austria.